Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Neglected Giant - Hasegawa Tohaku

Hasegawa Tohaku, one of the lesser known giants of the early Edo art world was the subject of a large retrospective exhibition at Kyoto Municipal Museum, from late April through to May.

As an exhibition, it contained surprises and delights - although I consider myself relatively knowledgeable about his work - certainly I have seen quite a lot over the years - this exhibition gave me a real sense of his oeuvre for the first time. Organised thematically, it gave the viewer a clear sense of his development, from his artistic beginnings as a painter of religious works for temples around the Noto peninsular, to his move to Kyoto, where a series of commissions catapulted him into the big time as a contender for the premier court artist - a niche which was being carved out by the Kano family under the guidance of Eitoku. It also gave a sense of how important patrons and contacts were. Tohaku had the good luck to be recognised by Sen no Rikyu, the tea master, who combined the roles of priest, aesthete and politician, and managed to secure the commissions that would allow Tohaku's ability to flourish and bring him to the recognition of a greater circle, including Hideyoshi. It was interesting that his circle of patrons also included the warlord Takeda Shingen (an enemy of Hideyoshi's master, Oda Nobunaga), and that several important and well known portraits, ones that often crop up in books and articles about these historical figures (including those of Rikyu and Shingen) were by him.

Looking at his major decorative panels, despite being faded and worn, one can not only see the magnificence of the design and colour, but it also makes one aware of the threat the Kano's must have felt. Similar in scale and materials, showing awareness of what the earlier generations of the Kano's had achieved, Tohaku's work is a departure, showing a creative talent given far more play than the house style of his rivals allowed them. Coming from a different tradition, he had not grown up seeing and copying the work of previous generations of painters in this tradition, and so his work has a freshness and originality that is rarely seen in Eitoku's work. There is less bombast, but just as much energy and power, and an equal, if not greater technical command.

His later work, especially the sumi-e, shows not only his technical brilliance but also an imaginative use of the medium that has rarely been equalled - his famous Shorinzu-byobu (Pine forest screen) was displayed in the last room, and made this very clear. Also there was a slightly earlier version, and also a cryptomeria in the moonlight version that displayed similar qualities. This was clearly the 'centre-piece' of the exhibition, (unusual, perhaps in being in the last room) and yet was fortunately not over crowded. Wisely, the organisers had us leaving on a high note - often these large exhibitions finish with a room of contemporaries and followers, which can lessen the impact that has been made.

This exhibition, especially the sumi-e provided a useful antidote for the usual labeling as 'Zen paintings'. Whatever the origin of the style,(and like much else, it was closely associated with Zen culture, though not necessarily practice) Tohaku himself was a devout follower of the Nichiren sect - these quintessential 'Zen' paintings had nothing to do with that sect.

Now for Kaiho Yusho?... One can but hope.

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